09 March 2017
Eminent Women in Politics and Governance, Miriam College – Women and Gender Institute (WAGI)
It is such an honor to be here with you, and I’d like to thank you for being so generous to me and my work.
It’s not everyday that one receives an award of this kind—and from such amazing women and a few men.
Maraming, maraming salamat po.
What a time this is to be alive. And more than that: what a time it is to be a Filipina. Filipinas are some of the luckiest women in the world. Compared to our global counterparts, Filipinas lead lives of enviable freedom.
The power that Filipinas wield is most evident in the lives of the women we recognize today: Hindi ko na po iisa-isahin, kasi lima kami.
When I was your age, hindi lahat, pero iyong bata pa, the sight of these accomplished women would have filled me with awe and excitement—but also uncertainty. Awe, because their achievements can seem distant from what I am capable of; and excitement, because their successes are a source of inspiration.
They show us that power chooses no gender; that ambition isn’t exclusive to men. But in my youth, I was also uncertain about how I could realize my dreams. I was painfully shy before, and of course there were times when I felt I wasn’t smart enough or good enough to do great things.
I figured then that for a woman to be successful, all she needed was to work hard and intelligently. Here I am now, many years later, saying that being smart and industrious isn’t enough.
The key to genuine achievement is to know loss and make peace with it; to be intimate with failure and learn from it; and to emerge at each turn with your principles intact, with stronger passion and commitment.
By reflex, we try to avoid loss and failure as much as we can. It’s our instinct for self-preservation. But remember this: failure can teach you much more about yourself and the world than success can. Loss can illuminate roads to wisdom that ordinary success can’t.
You don’t have to seek failure and loss, of course, but when they happen in your life, there is no need to fear and panic. Diba, sabi nga sa kanta: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
The secret to a life of happiness and fulfillment is learning how to extract strength from loss and failure.
One of my biggest, and one of the first heartbreaks for me, took place while I was in the University. I was a naïve probinsyana studying in the UP Diliman School of Economics.
My path in life, I thought, was already set: I was going to proceed to law school after graduation. This was to be a fulfillment of the promise I made to my father, who was a long-time judge in our hometown in Naga.
Life in UP, however, upended my well-laid plans. I was only a teenager then, when my friends and I stood witness to a terrible betrayal: the tyranny of the Marcos regime, its plunder and abuses, and the erosion of our freedoms.
When the Filipino people finally resisted—when we decided to fight for our rights—we took to EDSA in peaceful protest.
I’ll never forget the moment we all sang “Bayan Ko,” iyong mga kaidad ko, maalala iyan, how everyone wept for our country and everything that its people had been through. But our tears were of defiance—and also hope— for a better Philippines.
The heartbreak of losing our freedom during the Marcos dictatorship taught us valuable lessons: that the rights we enjoy as Filipinos should never be taken for granted.
That our liberty must never be taken from us again.
I’ve learned, too, that loss can make way for surprising blessings. The EDSA Revolution proved to me that service to the people was an urgent matter—a necessity that could not be put off.
Instead of going straight to law school, after graduation, I decided to return to my roots in Naga and work for government in an office called the Bicol River Basin Development Program.
There, I met Jesse, the man I would marry and love for the rest of my life–masyado pa rin pa lang romantic ang mga bata–the father of my three wonderful daughters. Jesse showed me what servant leadership meant—the kind of leadership that walked with the people, fully immersed in moments of honest service.
By the time Jesse and I started raising a family, I decided to keep my promise to myself and to my father. I finally studied to be a lawyer. But having worked with Jesse and Naga’s marginalized, I knew I could not pursue a conventional career in law. I became an alternative lawyer, a human rights lawyer, aiding poor farmers and fisherfolk, laborers and the urban poor, indigenous peoples and abused women, in their fight for justice.
In many ways, my husband was my mentor in governance reform. Being with him was an awakening into the world of authentic service—and the joys and sorrows that came with giving yourself to the country. We never really planned to have this kind of life; it just happened naturally. It simply became an unspoken family tradition.
Our bond was extraordinary not just because our love was genuine. It was also because we were ready to fight for the same causes: empowering those who have long been disempowered, and reforming government so it could truly serve the people.
But life, as they say, can throw quite a curveball. And what a devastating curveball it was. Perhaps the greatest of my losses is the same one that I assume everyone knows about. My husband’s death was a terrible blow to my family.
That day, I was just talking to him on the phone while driving to the airport to pick him up. His calm voice was explaining to me that the plane he was on had to go back to Cebu. Signal was difficult because he was inflight and he asked me to wait for him to call back.
But his call never came. The call that I got instead was of someone telling me that his plane had gone down in the waters of Masbate and search was on its way. It was the most devastating piece of news I had ever received in my life and the most painful thing I ever had to do was to deliver that same piece of news to my daughters.
I will be candid with all of you today: Jesse’s passing felt like an end to our commitment. When people asked me what I was going to do then, I said I would try to see if I can become a judge, like my father.
But then the whole nation grieved with us in the most unexpected way. It made me realize that death did not really dissolve my bond with Jesse. The love that he gave freely to me, our daughters, and the Filipino people was very much alive in the legacy he left behind.
Jesse’s life and death are a constant reminder to me that there are things greater than ourselves, and that there are causes that will always be worth fighting for, no matter the risk. Above all, his legacy taught me hope. I find hope in our public servants who—inspired by Jesse—have continued the difficult but necessary work of reform.
Jesse was proof that there are many good men and women in this country. The many servant-leaders in our nation today, including these women we honor today, are proof that the Filipino culture is not a damaged culture. Our people need not be disciplined with violence. Even here, in this hall, we are each other’s reason for hope.
These are extraordinarily difficult times.
There is a creeping culture of hate among us. It is easy to get lost in a world of lies, meanness, fake news, alternative facts, and feel helpless. Perhaps we ask ourselves, what has become of us as a people?
At the Office of the Vice President, we have decided to take the high ground and focus our sights on where we can make a difference. That is why my team and I have decided to devote several days of every week visiting the farthest and most forgotten of our communities.
Through our Angat Buhay program, we have gone to places like Agutaya, a faraway town in Palawan you can only reach by taking a 10-hour boat ride from Coron. It is in these places that we see the gaps in nation building that we need to fill. But while Agutaya showed us stunted and malnourished children, a Yolanda-damaged school that has not yet been rebuilt, and a town far removed from progress, we chose to see hope in its direst situation.
It is in places like Agutaya where we encounter women who, instead of choosing despair, choose hope. Who, instead of being angry that they were forgotten, choose gratitude that we remembered to visit them.
It is in these communities where we see how loss and failure enrich the experience of success, with humility and with the wisdom that will help us become an even better nation. We realize, more profoundly, that people make mistakes but they deserve a second chance. We see that human life is sacred and that our rights must be protected at every chance.
We know that our liberty is precious, and that it must be defended from those who want to take it away from us. Most importantly, we find that we can be the person we want to be, the Filipino we want to be, and the leader that this country needs us to be. From these stories of loss and failure, life shows us that it is up to us to claim our prizes and our rewards.
Life does not happen to us; we make of it what we can.
Do we want liberty and freedom and progress for ourselves and our people?
The answer lies in us.
Please remember this: you, young ones, can be the woman you want to be—free and empowered.
Let nothing and no one stop you from being who you want to be.
Maraming salamat po, at magandang umaga sa inyong lahat